During last week's E3, Microsoft touted Xbox SmartGlass, its me-too attempt to add a secondary display to its Xbox 360 experience. Microsoft's updated the My Xbox Live app for iPhone to give us a tiny taste of what it's like to use a secondary device to control an Xbox 360.
The first thing you have to do with the free My Xbox Live app is to pair it up with your Xbox 360. The entire process took all but a couple of seconds and a few taps on both the iPhone app and in the Xbox 360's settings menu.
Once that's all complete, you'll see a "Quickplay" page that shows all of your most recently used apps, be it games, videos or the Zune music player (soon to be called Xbox Music).
What The New My Xbox Live App Does
While the remote controls work best over Wi-Fi, it is possible to connect the iPhone to the Xbox 360 over 3G, though the app warns you the connection might be a little slow. There is an iPad version of My Xbox Live, but it didn't receive the media controls (yet).
As for the actual remote, it's more or less what you'd expect from a touchscreen media remote. That is to say, don't expect it to be better than a real remote. There are directional buttons for navigating the Xbox 360 dashboard and apps, an "A" button in the center and the "Y," "X" and "B" buttons below. That's all you get. It's a little cumbersome at first because of how the buttons are all spaced out, so you do end up looking down to make sure you've pressed the right button, but everything works as if you were using an Xbox 360 controller.
What I liked most is that the app can launch Xbox 360 games. If you've got a bunch of digital versions of your games stashed on your hard drive, bouncing between them is a real convenience, especially if you want to remotely start them (assuming your Xbox 360 is already powered on). If not, you'll obviously still need to get up and swap discs.
What The New My Xbox Live App Doesn't Do
As stated, the app's remote controls are nice added features, but it's a very tiny peek at what we expect to come with SmartGlass.
It pains me to tell you this, but the app still can't turn on or turn off your Xbox 360, which would be awesome for those who want to remotely boot up their consoles before going home from school or work.
The remote functionality also can't control DVDs, which is fine if you already get most of your videos through the Netflix or Amazon Instant Video apps, but awful if you still defer to physical media.
I really wish there was a "scrubbing" bar for rewinding and fast-forwarding. As it stands, to perform those functions you need to press and hold the back or forward buttons to activate an onscreen scrubber. I also don't understand why Microsoft decided to hide the rewind/play/pause/fast-forward buttons in another icon in the lower left corner of the app. If I didn't click it by accident, I'd have never found the playback controls. Why aren't they in a more visible location, say, below the main navigation controls page?
In closing, I don't consider myself a person who is too lazy to go grab an Xbox 360 controller, but I have to admit that it's nice to know that the My Xbox Live app companion is there should I need it. The idea behind SmartGlass is to make the devices you already own compatible with the Xbox 360. My Xbox Live continues to be a litmus test for what we can expect from the Xbox team in the future, and so far it's functional enough to be a meaningful addition.
Note: Windows Phone 7 users have had access to the media remote controls and app launching fun for a while now. With the iPhone, Microsoft is moving in to hit mass-appeal, something Windows Phone 7's dismal sales haven't been able to do.
Also, for the very first time the My Xbox Live app is available on Android's Google Play. It doesn't have the same media remote controls, but it should get it eventually.
All photos taken by Raymond Wong for DVICE.